Season 5 Shows “RED” is Still Getting Better
I love “RED.” “RED” is the little webseries that could proof that artful, quality content can be made on what is, comparatively, a shoestring budget, when made by the right hands. Completely crowdfunded and a labor of love for everyone involved, “RED” immediately transcended its Brazilian, Portuguese-language setting at its debut to reach a global audience, breaking the Anglo hegemony on queer content and introducing viewers to a slower paced, more emotion-driven form of storytelling. “RED” is not only a (justifiably critically acclaimed) study in cinematography, acting, and directing, it’s a model for how webseries’ can capitalize on the international queer female community to generate viewership and support.
Through its first four seasons, “RED” managed to strike a careful balance between plot, character development, and emotional impact, always ending on a cliffhanger. As we enter season five, which was released in mid-June and is set a year after the events in season four, here’s a reminder of where we’ve been (Spoiler Alert!):
Season 1 introduces us to the two characters around whom the series centers: Mel, a married bisexual woman, and Liz, a sort of Brazilian Shane McCutcheon who’s a recovering addict. The two develop an attraction while starring in a film together, and the season builds up to a climactic kiss that sets the stage for the subsequent seasons: is this just a fling born of working closely together, or is it true love?
In Season 2, Mel tries to hold onto her marriage despite her feelings for Liz, while Liz is frustrated by the attraction she’s not allowed to act on. Just as it seems that the two will finally come together, Mel discovers she’s pregnant, and Liz caves in to temptation to use drugs again. Is this the end for them just as it’s finally beginning?
Season 3 explores the struggle of trying to have a relationship when neither side is well-positioned for that relationship. Mel has left her husband for Liz, but worries that Liz will reject her pregnancy. Liz, meanwhile, is an unstable partner falling ever deeper back into addiction. When Mel miscarries, it has the potential to ease one strain in their relationship, but will they make it through?
In Season 4, Mel and Liz move in together, but it’s not happily ever after. Both are struggling with their own issues, and while they’re trying to make the relationship work, it seems to be falling apart around them. When they break up at the end of the season, viewers are left wondering how they can possibly rebuild and find the happiness they lost.
Season five opens with a question that is an obvious foreshadowing for the season: If you could start a relationship over again, knowing it failed the first time but that you’ve changed since then, would you? But is the relationship inferred the one between Mel and Liz, or does it have to do with their exes, who re-entered the picture in season four? With each season, “RED” has widened the focus of its storytelling. Each new season introduces additional characters and subplots, and the world of “RED” is growing as a result. From an initial tight focus on just Liz and Mel, we start to learn more about the people around them. (In an unexpected surprise, in season five, the most interesting character may well be Rafaela, “Rafa,” Liz’s ex.) This is an entire mini-world, populated by (almost exclusively) women with nuanced and complex lives of their own. As the show has matured, it has developed confidence in its ability to juggle multiple themes and narratives in the same season. Thus we see characters in season five of “Red” struggle to make ends meet, consider single motherhood, grapple with depression, and come to terms with ghosts of relationships past.
There are a few things that distinguish “RED” from other webseries. For one, the direction: director Fernando Belo is not a twentysomething shooting on an iPhone. He’s a skilled professional with an artistic eye who is seamlessly able to integrate visual texture, sound, and emotion in a way that amplifies the script. “RED” isn’t a mass manufactured, by-the-numbers Hollywood series; it’s an artistic experience that immerses the viewer. Second is “RED”’s bold approach to sensuality: unlike the majority of Anglo products that cut away at the first hint of a bra strap, “RED” embraces the sexual nature of relationships. Women initiate and enjoy sex. They show skin (tastefully). The show is very much a celebration of female relationships and sexuality. And finally, the characters are human. Their flaws aren’t cute and forgivable things like “forgets to put the cap back on the toothpaste.” They use drugs, they use each other, they make bad decisions and they suffer the consequences. The show empathizes with all of its characters, but is honest in its portrayal of human fallibility.
“RED” isn’t for everyone. The themes are heavy when compared to light-hearted, feel-good webseries alternatives. Almost all of the seasons have been downers, with characters sinking under the weight of their self-destructive (or more aptly put, “self-undermining”) behavior. This is the primary downside to the show: like a Russian play, there are few moments of unmitigated joy and happiness. Despite living by a beautiful beach, no one runs into the surf laughing. Depressing scenes are rarely punctuated by scenes of hope. In consequence, “RED” reads as fiercely pessimistic when it comes to relationships. Everyone who is in a relationship is miserable, while people not in a relationship are still negatively impacted by their past relationships. One may assume this is unintentional, an accidental side effect of trying to inject drama and realism into the plot, and may explain why the season add-on “Shades of RED” is more lighthearted and romantic.
Without spoiling the season for viewers who haven’t seen it, “Meliz” fans will find that at the end of a drought, there appear to be rainclouds ahead. But is there a rainbow for Rafa?